|AM-013| BICS and CALP – an overview

Hello ExamSeekers,

A while ago, I started preparing this post, but I never got to finish it. So today, I’m going to give you just an overview of what BICS and CALP are.

Some people might ask me about these two acronyms and what is the relevance of them to the ELT world. Well, it is not a very famous or usual acronym compared to the Cambridge Exams acronyms, but it is still very common to hear in the academic world.

First of all, you need to understand that these two acronyms refer to important concepts for teachers working with non-native students. So if you are a teacher to non-native speakers, and you are studying the differences between social language and academic language acquisition, you have surely come across these acronyms. This happens because they refer to the length of time required by immigrant children to develop conversational skills in the target language and grade-appropriate academic proficiency in that language.

In a very simple way, here is a summary of what these two acronyms mean:


BICS – Basic Integrated Communicative Skills

BICS is the social language. It refers to linguistic skills needed in everyday, social face-to-face interactions. For instance, the language used in the playground, on the phone, or to interact socially with other people is part of BICS. The language used in these social interactions is context embedded. That is, it is meaningful, cognitively undemanding, and non-specialized. It takes the learner from six months to two years to develop BICS.

This is the “Hi”, “Hello”, “How are you?”, language, which provides accessible communication – or at least, a conversation starter.


CALP – Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

CALP is the academic language. It focuses on proficiency in academic language or language used in the classroom in the various content areas. Academic language is characterized by being abstract, context reduced, and specialized. In addition to acquiring the language, learners need to develop skills such as comparing, classifying, synthesizing, evaluating, and inferring when developing academic competence. It takes learners at least five years to develop CALP. Research from Collier and Thomas (1995) has shown that it may take children with no prior instruction or no support in native language development at least seven years to develop CALP.

This is the language you need to ace in a test, which is required to be studied.


There is a simple way to understand through visualization, which Jim Cummings made:


There is a video on youtube, provided by Colorincolorado, which shows these differences. It is short: Terms to know: BICS and CALP, check it out!

I hope I was able to provide clear examples of the differences, but as I mentioned, it has just an overview! If you have any other questions, please comment in the comment session below. Don’t forget to follow the blog at:

Have a great week,
Patricia Moura

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